Face Blind! by Bill Choisser

I’d forgotten about this until I began re-reading Great American Science Writing of 2007. Beside’s Mark Chapman’s excursion to the U.S. court case Kitzmiller v. Dover, it has an article about Bill Choisser’s discovery of face blindness. It’s a neurological condition that keeps people from recognizing faces. They will literally pass their own mothers on the street (as Bill once did) without recognizing them. It can lead to scarily funny moments, such as a fellow trying to start up a conversation with an attractive woman—who turns out to be his ex-girlfriend. People with face-blindness go to extraordinary lengths to live socially—to remember, and greet, people they know or meet.

The condition was known before, but in isolated cases of brain damage. The Internet, with its usenet groups and, later, Yahoo Groups, enabled the congenitally face-blind to find each other, realize how profoundly different they were from others, and break through some of their isolation. They provide subjects for research. The condition is now called prosopagnosia, from the Greek prosopos, face, and agnosia, not knowing. The odd thing is that they can learn to recognize houses or cars, the same way anyone else does. They try to learn faces that way But the talent of recognizing faces is so inborn and so sensitive that there’s really no way to recreate it by trying.

Bill’s book, Face Blind!, is online and free.

I wonder if people who “never forget a face” have an unusually large “Face Processing Area” in the visual cortex?


One Response to “Face Blind! by Bill Choisser”

  1. bPer Says:

    Hi Mona,

    This reminds me of a curious experience I’ve had several times while out with my astronomy buddies observing together. We operate with no lights other than small, dim red lights for detail work, and prefer to be out when the moon is not up. In that condition, we are basically operating by starlight, which is all we need once our eyes have fully adapted. Perhaps surprisingly, we can easily move around without bumping into equipment (even when it’s painted black) and each other.

    The curious thing is that I’ve repeatedly found myself talking in a group, and what I see reminds me of face blindness – the others are just black outlines, but where their faces are, there are whitish, featureless, indistinct ovals. It almost looks like the way video faces are blurred out to protect a person’s identity. You might think that’s just their lighter causasian skin showing up, but the same effect happens in the winter when we’re all bundled up with toques, balaclavas and skarves. I suspect that it’s a mental artifact – my brain putting a ‘face’ where I expect it to be.


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